Review: The Man in the High Castle

Book review
Written by Philip K Dick
Gollancz hardback
Release date Out now

It’s 1962 in a world in which the Nazis and Japanese won the Second World War. Though the superpowers have carved up the USA between them, there remains an underlying tension between the two Empires, which is only exacerbated by the death of the Reich chancellor. Meanwhile, Frank Fink and his partner begin a unique new jewellery business, Frank’s estranged wife Juliana hooks up with an Italian ex-soldier, and antiques dealer Robert Childan ponders the future of his business. And one book gives hope to all those who dream of freedom…

The events of The Man in the High Castle all revolve in some way around a controversial novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen. The book is an alternate history tale that considers what might have happened if the Allies had won World War II. It inspires hope in most who read it, but also prompts Abendsen’s enemies to plot his downfall (the author is rumoured to live in a fortified castle in the US’s neutral buffer zone).

“What is it Abendsen wanted to say? Nothing about his make believe world,” Juliana Fink muses on reaching the end of the book. The same sentiment could easily be applied to Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Though the novel is regarded as one of the defining alternate history novels, anyone expecting either a realistic account of what might have happened if the Axis powers had won or a Fatherland-style thriller is likely to be disappointed.

Instead, Dick is more concerned with (to quote the title of a Walter Benjamin book) the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and of empty imitations (in life and art) versus spiritual and artistic truth. In the Japan-dominated San Francisco of this world, historic US artefacts have become highly collectable by young Japanese; but alongside this numerous indistinguishable fakes also circulate – themes that foreshadow Dick’s later most famous novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

The novel also sets up the conflict between the nihilism of the Nazis, who bring a holocaust upon Africa and conquer other planets in a ruthless pursuit of progress that’s untroubled by humanist concerns, and the purity afforded by the Chinese religious text the I Ching (or ‘Book of Changes’).

Dick’s writing style is deceptively simple, but this is a story of immense complexity and imagination. Importantly, Dick has a real talent for creating fascinating, compulsive characters to accompany his ideas (not something that can be said about all SF writers). The set of loosely connected individuals here, all of who eventually learn to transcend their troubled reality, lend the novel a heart as well as a brain. Matt McAllister

A philosophical SF drama that uses its alternate history premise in smart and surprising ways.


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